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Our critics weigh in on local exhibitions

"Anne Appleby." These paintings are easy to love. Though Appleby's work has changed very little over the years, it always appears fresh, and is always a pleasure to look at. Her masterful monochromes are luminous meditations on color -- leafy green triptychs, suites of mossy shades set off by a brilliant square of pink. This latest series is inspired by the carefully controlled chaos of the domestic garden. Appleby layers thin glazes of paint onto wooden panels and burnishes their surfaces to a flawless finish, leaving the edges to glow with faintly contrasting hues that inspire a subtle optical reverberation. Each painting registers the transformations that cultivated flora undergo in the course of a season, with every translucent layer marking a slight change in hue. The effect is of a sublime springtime, calm and verdant and full of hope. Through Oct. 2 at Gallery Paule Anglim, 14 Geary (at Kearny), S.F. Admission is free; call 433-2710 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed Sept. 22.

"Raggedy Ann and Friends: The Art of Johnny Gruelle." She's 89, he's 84, and their best friends are children and toy collectors. Raggedy Ann and Andy are not your typical seniors, and their enduring charm makes us love them for it. That yarn hair! Those wide eyes! But the famous pair of old-fashioned rag doll characters are not the only creations of illustrator Johnny Gruelle, many of whose other comic strips (Mr. Twee Deedle, Jack the Giant Killer, Brutus) and books are exhibited at "Raggedy Ann and Friends" along with plenty of his drawings for magazines and newspapers. Tons of Ann and Andy stuff has been collected by Gruelle-obsessed curator Andrew Tabbat, including dolls, ephemera, and animation art. Through Nov. 7 at the Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission (at New Montgomery), S.F. Admission is free-$6; call 227-8666 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed July 7.

"Sean McFarland." There's something decidedly unsettling about Sean McFarland's photographs. His streetscapes are almost unnervingly familiar -- the facade of a SOMA parking garage, a row of Mission District bars, the graffitied walls of a downtown alleyway. And yet they never resolve into specific places. Indistinct, saturated with glowing blues and oranges, they remain just beyond the limits of our cognitive maps. McFarland's technique is cunning: He prowls the streets of San Francisco, flattening their contours with his camera. From these prints, he constructs elaborate three-dimensional models, assembling buildings from around the city into plausible dioramas that he then rephotographs at close range. The dreamy nonplaces that result are simultaneously convincing and disorienting. Through Oct. 16 at the Jack Hanley Gallery, 395 Valencia (at 15th Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 522-1623 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed Sept. 22.

"Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries." From the early 1800s until the 1960s, an estimated 30,000 Irish women were forced into church-run slave labor camps. Their "crimes" were varied. At first the Catholic Sisters of the Magdalene Order jailed prostitutes, but later they locked up girls who'd become pregnant out of wedlock (whether via rape or consensual sex), those who were illegitimate, or even vixenish lasses they considered in "moral danger." Incarcerated without trials and often for life, the women worked from dawn until dusk doing domestic tasks, especially laundering institutional linens and uniforms. The last Magdalene internment facility closed in 1996. Now artists Diane Fenster and Michael McNabb recall the brutal confinements in "Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries," a room-size installation that combines photographic images of imprisoned women imprinted on hanging bedsheets with text written by survivors. As viewers move through the maze of sheets, they hear a digital soundtrack playing the voices of former inmates -- reminiscences that hauntingly, creepily, bring the internees' ordeal to life. Through Oct. 17 at the Blue Room Gallery, 2331 Mission (at 19th Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 282-8411 or visit (Joyce Slaton) Reviewed Sept. 15.

"Tinkering!" The act of taking stuff apart and (optionally) putting it back together is traditionally the province of dads. This summer, though, everyone's favorite science museum has brought such futzing out of the garage and into the public domain. Women and children, prepare your tool kits for "Tinkering!," an exhibition and series of events designed to give people the "So that's how it works!" experience. (Dad can come along, too.) The exhibit's Take-It-Apart Days feature cars, toasters, bicycles, and other machines just for dismantling. The related display "Cabaret Mechanical Theater" offers a set of hand-carved "automata" sculptures full of gears and other moving parts. And a film series highlights great tinkerers like Grandma Tressa Prisbrey, builder of glass-bottle houses. Through Oct. 3 at the Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon (at Marina), S.F. Museum admission is free-$9.50; call 561-0360 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed June 30.

"Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens." Yoshitomo Nara's unruly kids have been corralled together for the artist's first U.S. solo show. The Tokyo-based Nara draws on the manga tradition to create an irresistible cohort of wide-eyed children, by turns sweet and saucy. Some doze dreamily in giant sculpted teacups; others sport scowls and curse us out from pages of newsprint. Though they look terrific emblazoned on T-shirts and mugs, Nara's protagonists transcend mere marketing fodder. They remind us, with their sweetly fanged smiles, that it's possible to make mischief -- even when it seems certain that your voice will never be heard. Through Oct. 31 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 South Market (at West San Fernando), San Jose. Admission is free; call (408) 271-6840 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed July 21.


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